Voyeurs of New York

August 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve spent weeks mentally elaborating my answers to the usual Humans of New York questions – “What was the happiest moment of your life?”, “If you could give a piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be”, you know the drill. I felt fully prepared for a spontaneous interview, only to discover that the HONY guy disappeared to the Middle East, leaving me and my answers behind in New York.

The method behind HONY is surprisingly simple, yet effective. The questions he asks are so personal that the answers will sound tragic in most cases. Combine them with a portrait of the person not quite facing the camera, post them online and wait for the comments to pour in. People will say that the stories “really put things into perspective”, whatever these things are. It’s a publicly acceptable kind of voyeurism because it makes you realize just how freakin’ #blessed you are. I enjoy reading the posts and looking at the photos, but I usually avoid the predictably repetitive comments.

Now, Brandon is in the Middle East, posting pictures from Jordan and Iraq. Photos showing families in a refugee camp or a guy riding a donkey in the desert were just what the mainly American audience expected, but some pics “completely shattered” – as they eloquently put it – their mental images of the Middle East.

The comments reveal complete cultural ignorance and prove the stereotype that many Americans have no idea about anything that lies beyond the borders of the United States. One picture shows a young woman in Western clothing (awesome DKNY paisley pants that I’m somewhat jealous of), and some of the top comments say that “for a second, I thought you were back in New York”. Really? What if I told you that girls like her are as common a sight in Amman as they are in New York?

In another photo, we see a little girl with her arm in a cast. The caption reveals that she fell down the stairs looking at the stars. One comment reads that this would not happen to first world kids because a) they’re looking at their phones all the time and b) even if they looked up, they wouldn’t see any stars because of light pollution. Again, what if I told you kids in Jordan have smart phones too? And what if I told you Amman has its own fair share of a light-polluted orange night sky?

I’ve been to New York, I’ve been to Amman. Dear New Yorkers, could you do me a favour and get off your high horse for a second? You might realize that Amman is more like New York than you first want to admit. I know it’s hard to believe for some of you, but the Middle East is more than bombs, camels, and women covered from head to toe. If you can accept that, I’ll accept that ‘murica is more than burgers and cultural ignorance.

Update: The HONY dude is in Africa now. I expect the comments to get worse. Please note that Africa is not a country.


Sleeping Beauty on the Barricades

January 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

I joined a creative writing group some months ago. We usually meet once a week and do two or three themed writing prompts. Today, we tried our hands at fairy tales – I had to write a story about Sleeping Beauty, set in Paris in May 1968. The original story was written in German, but I decided to translate it and share it with you. Enjoy!

Il était une fois a Paris that is not described in the travel guides. A Paris where the students were fed up with everything. A Paris were the young were hanging on the lips of Jean-Paul Sartre who told them stories about Being and Nothingness.

Rose did not understand everything he said, but she too was under the spell of the cross-eyed philosopher. Rose was smart and beautiful, she had graduated top of the class at high school and was now a first-year French literature major. She was one of the girls who had been born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Whenever she participated in a rally, some of her fellow students forgot what they were fighting for and threw glances her way. Rose, who was so pretty in her almost too short skirts and yet so aloof.

She was in the front line the day they occupied the university. What had started out as a small movement had seized the whole city. The historic main building of the university had never been so crammed, people were crowding in the lecture rooms and in the hallways.

Rose wasn’t the only one to faint that day. The air was pregnant with ideas, there was hardly any room for oxygen. Rose was just about to leave the building when she lost consciousness and dropped to the floor. The boys who usually stared at her carried her outside. “Rose? Rose, are you okay?”, one of them asked. Rose didn’t answer. She was just lying there, on the concrete in front of the university. Was she still unconscious? Had she fallen asleep? She was breathing calmly, peacefully. Rose, the aloof girl, looked as fragile as a porcelain doll.

Jacques bent over her and gave her a tender kiss on the cheek. Rose opened her eyes and looked around.

Jacques held his cheek. It still hurt from the slap. He could hear Rose whisper: “Now I know what Simone meant when she said you’re not born a woman, but you become one.”

Reshaping democracy.

September 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Two weeks are left until the German federal elections. I’m a first-time voter and what can I say, I’m unreasonably excited about it. Today, I stumbled upon an article in a German newspaper that claims non-voting is a luxury in a working democracy. I shared it on my facebook, followed by a long rant about the importance of voting, posted the same rant as a comment on the newspaper’s facebook page and sent it to them as a letter to the editor. Anas and I had a discussion about democracy the other day, and I used some of our arguments in my rant. Of course, Anas asked me to translate it, which I did. And now I’m sharing it with you, dear readers.

Yes, it’s not about capitalism versus communism anymore, it’s only about the question whether social market economy should be a bit more social-orientated or a bit more market-orientated. Yes, many of the big issues of the past decades have been dealt with so that parties don’t ask about the “whether” any longer but about the “how”. The political waves that we face have become shallower, more subtle. More than ever the voter, if he wants to look like an informed citizen, has to pay attention to detail. It’s not enough to study the slogans on the billboards. You have to read between the lines, and that’s exhausting. Too exhausting for those who don’t have the time or don’t feel like it.

But: This is not a problem of the individual, it’s a structural problem that has its roots in the current situation of the Federal Republic of Germany. We’re sitting comfortably in a country that, during the past 20 years, has established a stable democracy. But a stable democracy has two weaknesses: It is gridlocked and it makes us lazy. We don’t need discussions about non-voters and we don’t need TV commercials that pitch voting to us.

I was born in 1992, after the reunification, in the year the Maastricht Treaty was signed. I have never experienced a divided Germany, only what is left from it today. I have never experienced a Europe with borders. We, the around-the-reunification-children, take this luxury for granted because that’s all we know. We were born into a system where we can move around freely. That’s great, that’s a privilege, and I don’t want to give it up. But many of us don’t understand that you can also turn over a gridlocked system, without violence and without blood. The key word is participation. Change in a stable country comes from the citizens within in the frame of their political participation.

What we need is a dynamic democracy that gets away from the representative bureaucracy our democracy it has become in the past few decades. It’s about time for the people, the demos, to reshape democracy. In a democracy where there is an unsurmountable barrier between those who elect and those who are elected, voting is too abstract. Many voters don’t make the effort to reflect and scrutinize the parties’ programmes. Why should they? It doesn’t matter who’s in power, our political system works anyway. But – couldn’t it be different? Better? Closer to the people? More dynamic?

It could. But for this to come true we have to vote. Our vote always counts, and it’s only partly true that the fewer people vote, the more the individual vote counts. I share my vote with millions of citizens. If more people who share my opinions and ideals vote for the same party, our votes count more. In the institutionalised democracy that we’re living in today we don’t vote as individuals, we vote as part of a group with common values and ideas. But this institutionalised democracy has to change, it has to move, because deadlock, in the long run, is bad. In order for democracy to move forward, we have to vote – even without commercials that tell us to do so.


What do Vandana Shiva and a teddy bear have in common?

July 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

I assume all of you know what a teddy bear is, and I hope some of you have an idea who Vandana Shiva is. For those who don’t, she’s an Indian environmental activist and globalization critic. She gave the closing speech at this year’s Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum (DWGMF) which I attended last month. For a stream and transcript of her impressive speech, click here. One paragraph at the very beginning of her speech caught my attention in particular:

And in ‘72 we had a horrible flood and the women came out and said these trees protect us.  They prevent the landslides, they prevent the flooding, they give us food, they give us fodder, they are our mothers and you can’t cut them and they created one of the most amazing movements that became my university of ecology.

Why? Not only because it’s a great story about courage, but also because I had heard it before – at work. After high school, I volunteered at a local environmental education centre for a year and now, four years later, I still work there as a freelancer. We mainly teach elementary school kids about issues in sustainability, climate change and environmental protection, and one of our most popular programmes is Teddybear’s Picknick: The children and their teddy bears are sent on a quest to discover the meaning of swaf (shelter, water, air, and food) with the help of various fun activities and games. One of the acitivies is a story about a girl in India who stands up against timbers who try to chop down the forest surrounding her village. She and the other villagers all hug a tree and refuse to let go – because they know their lives depend, to a certain extent, on those trees

It’s nice to hear the same story being told in two seemingly different contexts. But it also goes to show how closely related these contexts are: While the DWGMF is concerned with a global, more political context, environmental education centres break down those complex global issues and pass them on to the next generation.

The German environmental movement of the 1980s had one important slogan: “We’ve borrowed planet Earth from our children.” The children from back then are grown-ups now and have come to realize that they – that we – too have borrowed this planet from our children. This is a great responsibility for our generation as it’s our task to create a more sustainable planet. I know that sustainability has become an annoying, overused buzzword lately, but I’m using it in it’s very basic meaning: We have to respect planetary boundaries in order to make sure that the “effects of our action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.

Environmental education plays a key role here: It’s not enough for my generation to realize that resources are finite. We have to sensitize our children for the idea of sustainability. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those eco-warriors and I don’t think that sustainable living should be imposed upon the people by a higher authority. No. What I mean is that responsibility for the planet should be considered as important as responsibility for our bodies – we remind our children to brush their teeth before bed, but we don’t remind them to turn off their electric devices.

The Constant Fear of Failure

February 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

I have to admit that my last blog post on the difference between book lovers and bibliophiles was arrogant and shallow. But we all are arrogant and shallow from time to time, aren’t we? Anyway, in order to make up for it, today’s post is way humbler. Today’s post is about failure, or about my failure, to be more specific.

One of the first posts on this blog was about my plans to write and it was boldly titled “The day I started writing”. I could as well have named it “The day I stopped writing” because my writing career was over before it even began. I wanted to write at least two pages of fiction every week which worked pretty well for exactly one week. What was it that made me stop trying? The exact same thing that has made me stop trying so many things, from knitting to taekwondo. The constant fear of failure.

As a literature enthusiast (or a bibliophile, or a book lover), I’m a very critical reader. I examine every single book that I read closely and carefully and I pay a lot of attention to detail. One could say that this makes reading a tedious activity, and yes, sometimes reading is work, not pleasure. I tend to detect tiny flaws, inconsistencies and bad style even in my favourite books or in books that I consider very well-written in general. On the other hand, I know that my own attempts at fiction are way worse, full of errors and nothing but baby steps.

I have two possibilities: either I try very hard and I just write and revise everything until I’m more or less satisfied, or I expect so much of myself right from the beginning that no matter how often I revise a sentence, I’ll only see the bad parts of it. The first method would be the sensible thing to do, but I tend to go for the second one. This not only applies to fiction writing, but also to academic papers – I want them to be perfect and I spend hours on tiny style details that probably don’t matter anyway.

How did the great writers start writing? Did they just sit down and casually jot down their first novel? Or did they plan it carefully, making several drafts before they actually start writing the first sentence? Probably there are as many approaches to writing as there are authors, and some of them share their method with the world, claiming it’s the best. Some authors write so many novels that I can’t imagine them putting a lot of effort into them, and yet they’re good. Some authors write novels so carefully that you can sense their insecurity, their self-consciousness in every sentence, and yet their novels are good too. There’s no magic potion for writing.

Speaking about the first kind of author, Chuck Palahniuk has just announced three new books for 2013, 2014 and 2015. He seems to pop out novels like Irish women pop out babies. What’s his secret? According to his page, the 2015 book is ‘merely’ a collection of short stories, most of which have already been published. I used quotation marks here because I don’t even manage to complete a single short story whereas he just offhandedly publishes a whole lot of them every year. About his 2014 book, Chuck himself says that

It’s a comic/erotic thriller, a mash-up of ‘mommy porn’ and chick lit such as Sex and the City, and fantasy lit like Clan of the Cave Bear.  Imagine if Ira Levin had a baby with Jean Auel.

I have no idea what exactly this means for the novel, but it sounds… interesting.

I wonder if Chuck Palahniuk is insecure about what he writes. His books sound extremely self-confident, even arrogant, but I want to know what the person behind these awesome works of fiction is like. Is he hesitant to show his work to other people? Does he ask others for their opinion during the process of writing, or does he complete the story first and then has other people revise it?

No matter what the answer is, another author will definitely give a completely different answer. If I want to write fiction one day – and I’m pretty sure I still want to do it – I have to find my own way through the jungle of writing techniques. For the time being, I’ll stick with blogging. This article is now 750 words long, and I have only rewritten a sentence or two. Writing 750 words of fiction, on the other hand, would take me hours.

On book lovers and bibliophiles

January 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

Listen, folks! Reading is boring and for losers. It doesn’t require a lot of talent, it’s something you do alone and it’s not competitive at all. A perfectly dorky pastime. Although I could question these arguments, they all have a grain of truth in them. Where do people with boring hobbies go in order to find other people with the same boring hobby? Right, the internet. The internet harbours all kinds of freaks, from train spotters to foot fetishists to readers. Since I neither particularly like trains nor feet, I hardly know a thing about the first two groups, but what I know for sure is that there are different types of readers –

Today’s article distinguishes the bibliophile from the common book lover. Both species can be found on the internet, but their habits and habitats differ. On almost every social networking website you can find people who list “reading” or “books” as their hobby. Luckily, facebook also offers you to list your favourite books, and a quick glance at somebody’s favourites can sometimes be enough to classify them.

The common book lover consumes a lot of written material, mainly best sellers, crime novels, well-known series and the occasional classic. The common book lover is harmless, but boring. They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I think you can judge a person by their books. The common book lover’s perfect Saturday afternoon involves “a good book, a blanket and a cup of tea”. Nothing wrong with that, but not exactly the most exciting thing on earth either.

The bibliophile, on the other hand, has a more refined taste in books and literature. The bibliophile condescendingly looks down to best sellers and the people who read them on the train. He (or less often, she) avoids big chain bookstores and everything that was featured on Oprah – you can call him the snobby, elitist hipster of literature. As annoying and narrow-minded as his opinions might be, I still consider him more interesting than the average book lover (and to a certain extent, I’m a bibliophile myself). He usually has a vast knowledge of literature, maybe even literary theory, and he can actually make good book recommendations.

5921641478_561034727e_zThe common book lover, too, likes recommending books. She (or less often, he) is usually found on pen pal websites, looking for people to talk about books with. When you ask her for a recommendation, she’ll name the last good book she has read, even if this book is Twilight and you have clearly stated that you do not like “teen paranormal romance”. They mean well, but they lack the experience. Unfortunately, more often than not it’s the book lovers who pride themselves with having a good taste in literature.

It’s also the common book lover who runs the book-related boards and pages on tumblr and especially Pinterest. Pinterest is a cool way to share stuff with the world, and I enjoyed browsing through the book boards for a couple of days, until I realised that my taste greatly differs from the Pinterest mainstream. Also, most people there seem to value quantity higher than quality, they brag about the amount of books they’ve already read this year, whereas I’m proud of myself if I find my way through a particularly difficult or demanding book.

The bibliophile is less prominent, he hides in little niches that you don’t find right away. He will not shove book memes in your face, he’ll try to get to know you first and then make some recommendations you might actually like or at least give a try.

Back in the real world, those differences hardly matter. Reading the latest teen paranormal romance novel is no less nerdy than reading Arno Schmidt. Some months ago, I was hunting for a room and met with a potential roommate who had a room to offer. “So, what are your hobbies?”, she asked me. There it was. My kryptonite. I don’t really have any hobbies, or do I? I don’t play an instrument. I don’t paint. I don’t knit. I only cook in order to satisfy my hunger and I only do sports in order to stay in shape. The only hobby that I have is literature – this is what the bibliophile would say. The common book lover would say that she loves books, or reading. I just said that “I read a lot”. The interview was over, and needless to say, I didn’t get the room.

All I want for Christmas is… books!

December 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Christmas is just around the corner, but some of us haven’t done their gift shopping yet. As we all know, the world was supposed to end today, but here we are, safe and sound. Those who seriously believed in the apocalypse probably didn’t even bother to buy Christmas presents this year, and now they need an emergency plan. The same thing goes for the usual procrastinators who never do their holiday shopping before the 23rd. So we proudly present

The Kitten Review’s Handy Guide to Giving Books as Presents

I love giving books as presents and I have a whole pile on my shelf, neatly wrapped in reindeer-themed holiday paper. But of course you can’t just go to the bookstore and grab ten copies of the same bestseller – most people probably wouldn’t notice, but you as a Literary Santa should pay some attention to what book you pick for whom.

What are you saying? Your friends and family don’t read? Here’s why you should give them books nevertheless: Not all books require a lot of reading effort. There are books for all kinds of people, and if you follow some simple rules, your book present will even make a non-reader smile. A hardcover copy of your all-time favourite novel might seem incredibly precious to you, but it’s not the appropriate gift for your teenage cousin.

Disclaimer: All characters appearing in the following list are fictitious. Any resemblance to members of my family is purely coincidental.*

The elderly relative

The elderly relative spends most of her days sitting on the sofa, watching the same three channels on television and solving crossword puzzles. She is not very talkative and you actually have no idea if she has any special interests. From time to time, she will pick up a novel and read a couple of pages. The keyword here is quantity. The elderly relative has a lot of time on her hands, and she doesn’t care much about the style of a work of literature. I recommend historical fiction – a 700 page novel about a medieval midwife or a 1888 London doctor should keep her busy until her next birthday, or even until next Christmas.

The cosmopolitan couple

The cosmopolitan couple just came back from their Christmas shopping in London and immediately updated their facebook profile pictures. Whatever they do, they seem to do it together, and they like to wear matching sunglasses. Now, you have two choices, either you treat them as one and give them one book, preferably a coffee table book about New York or South East Asia, or you treat them as ying and yang and give them complimentary books. The cosmopolitan couple travels a lot, and if you know their next destination, you could get them a city guide and a travel dictionary.

The scientist

The scientist collects butterflies, weather maps and unread books. He always orders heaps of books from catalogues, but he hardly ever actually reads them. He has a passion for books, but be careful – it might take him several years to finish a novel. It’s almost impossible to find a book from his field that he doesn’t have yet, so the safest option is a book that treats something remotely sciency. Usually, the scientist is also an atheist, so a book that disproves the existence of god is a good choice. (Or a book on evolution, but to some people, that’s just a tomayto-tomahto question.)

The casual reader

The casual reader has built up a respectable book collection in her lifetime that spans from A (Douglas Adams) to Z (Juli Zeh) and covers almost every genre and era. But that doesn’t mean that you can just get her the first book you see in the book store! For the casual reader, reading is a pleasure, a counterpart to her working life. Although she mainly reads for entertainment, she despises shallow novels, so you should avoid the average chick-lit at all costs. The casual reader likes intelligent and witty writing, so I would recommend some good satire or a well-written crime novel.

The kids

From an earlier article, you know that I consider reading and literature crucial for every child. However, not all parents agree with me and pass on that attitude to their kids. But don’t give up! Many children eventually discover the joys of reading. Try to find a book that has something to do with their favourite hobby, or maybe something related to a movie/TV franchise. Just hope that the kids won’t walk up to you with their brandnew books, shove them into your face and tell you that “If I wanted to read that, I could get it at the library. But I don’t want it anyway.”

The literature lover

Ah, here comes the most difficult type. The literature lover is very picky about what books they want, and of course they already have hundreds of books. It’s relatively likely that you either give them a book they already have or one they wouldn’t even be caught dead reading. If you want to give them a book, make sure that you know them really well or ask them if they want a particular book.

Yes, I consider myself a literature lover. And of course this will come off as arrogant, but as long as I don’t specifically ask for a book, don’t give me one. Unless you’re Anas. If you’re Anas, give me all your books. In return, if you’re Anas, you’ll receive all my books for Christmas.

The Kitten Review wishes you happy holidays and a happy new year!

* Of course, this is a downright lie. Every person on this list is based on someone I know.